“Map of My Kingdom” is a play written by Mary Swander, Iowa’s Poet Laureate, and tells the in-the-trenches stories of an Iowa lawyer and mediator who counsels her clients through the emotional and stressful decisions surrounding passing on the family farm. The play, commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa, is intended to encourage farm families to start the conversation about transitioning the family farm to the next generation. If you think a play about farm succession and estate planning doesn’t sound all that exciting, you’re not alone. According to the playbill, even the playwright was skeptical. Said Swander, “When I began my research into the issue, I wondered where I would find the conflict for the show, but the conflict was everywhere I turned.”
I had the privilege of attending a performance of “Map of My Kingdom” starring Chicago actress Cora Vander Broek Brumlow, who is also an Orange City native and a graduate from Northwestern College. To say her performance was amazing would be a disservice. Despite playing in a one-woman show, Vander Broek Brumlow portrayed each of the play’s myriad personalities with distinctiveness and emotion. From a crotchety old farmer sitting on his porch with a shotgun to “Grandma Millie” to the premature widow trying to make sense of her husband’s early death, every “role” drove home a different element of the play’s message.
Communication is Key
As with any well-written play, “Map of My Kingdom” has a variety of themes, some finely nuanced and others with the subtlety of a bulldozer. Swander highlights the darkness of human nature – jealousy, pride, greed – through tales of fratricide, deceit, and manipulation. But there’s hope, too, in the lives of a husband and wife who find a common thread for their farm succession in an unlikely place or in the indomitable Grandma Millie.
However, the play’s overarching theme, the one common through all the stories Swander weaves together, is this: communication is key. Problems are solved, feelings are spared, relationships are maintained – or even mended – through open and transparent planning. Your farm is your farm, so you should decide how you want to pass it down to your heirs. But your heirs need to know what, how, and why you made your decisions. Is it important to you that all of your children be treated equally? Tell them that! Is it more important that the farmland pass to one child as they step into your role as steward and caretaker of the farm? Talk to your non-farming heirs about why. Be clear, not only about your decision, but also about your reasons. Failure to communicate could cause hurt feelings, at best, or years of difficult and harmful court battles, at worst.
Does Your Dog Bite?
The play closes with a classic call to action. Too many people think their family will be the exception to the painful stories told by Swander. I regularly hear comments like, “My kids get along,” or, “Our family just doesn’t fight.” Many people think that their kids will accept their decision because it was their decision to make. Unfortunately, assumptions like this create the drama Swander discovered at every turn of her research into farm transitions.
The message of “Map of My Kingdom” rings true for farmers and non-farmers alike. Every one of us – including this lawyer and theatre-goer – should evaluate how our affairs will be concluded when we meet the Creator. Have you communicated your wishes clearly with your loved ones? As Mary Swander tells it, estate planning is the big, barking dog in the room. Don’t assume you and your family won’t get bitten.
Map of My Kingdom: Final Thoughts
First, I loved the play, though I am admittedly biased about the subject matter and the main character. It’s not often that an estate planner is the hero of any story, and estate planning is second only to tax law as the least exciting subject for story telling. But I think maybe that’s what makes “Map of My Kingdom” so impressive. Swander, Vander Broek-Brumlow, and director Matt Foss take an otherwise boring topic and make you love and hate each hero and villain. Even the lawyer is as endearing as you might expect a lawyer to be. So, the play is both well written and well performed.
Second, “Map of My Kingdom” is just good story-telling. From the themes of human nature mentioned above, to stewardship, family, kindness, and conflict, the stories told by Swander resonate with a wide spectrum of people. Vander Broek Brumlow had the audience in fits of laughter from the get-go, but she pushed us from the hysterical antics of Grandma Millie directly into the shock she felt when she heard about the sale of Grandma Millie’s farm.
But the clincher for me was the way the play created a compelling desire to make a change. Good theatre should make you think, motivate you to change something about yourself or your world. Good theatre may even change your life. “Map of My Kingdom” won’t change your life, but it might improve your death – at least for the ones you leave behind.
See “Map of My Kingdom” because the actress is spectacular. See it because you love theatre. See it because it’s about farmers. Whatever your reasons, if you get a chance to see “Map of My Kingdom,” take it. It won’t change your life, but it could change your death.